Time: ~100 minutes
Times Played: 7
Let’s get straight to it. I wasn’t a fan of Spirit Island. I want to get that out of the way early.
There are many reviews that will tout all the great things this game does (and I’ll get to them in the bottom half of this review) but I was severely let down by Spirit Island. Let’s get into why.
Players spend a lot of time worried about not losing which makes the victory anti-climatic as it just “appears” if players aren’t keeping an eagle eye on the conditions. Worse is when a player knows they’re going to win and the remainder of the game isn’t worth playing as the outcome is a given. I enjoy the challenge the game offered and playing to not lose was interesting to me but the game telegraphed its ending far too early in games. I’m struggling to think of games that I’ve played where the ending (whether a win or a loss) could be known so far in advance. There are games where you are clearly in the hole and likely to lose but Spirit Island made it clear that you were going to lose (just not yet).
A majority of the fun I experienced in playing Spirit Island was racking my brain to discover a way to dig myself out of a hole or finding a way to stay one step ahead of the Invaders but many times the hole was too big and it was obvious that there was no reason to keep playing. Like a game of Chess, you just knew you were defeated and should concede now as opposed to wasting more time.
The difficulty of the game was a welcome change compared to most games I’ve played, but it felt like the difficulty was scaled to be difficult as opposed to provide a challenge for players. That statement might seem counter-intuitive but I felt the game would be difficult regardless of my skill level. A game would play out exactly the same whether I played it with close experienced gamers or if my parents played it for the first time.
The difficulty of the game can be increased, which is great, but there’s no way to know what level is right for you (and your group) without slogging through each level. You might breeze through a level or two or be absolutely gobsmacked. It was hard to pinpoint where our skill level fell and you only want to attempt so much trial and error.
Which brings me to another point, Spirit Island felt very formulaic in its approach each game. After your first game or two, there are no surprises and you’ll see what’s coming from a mile away. There’s never any uncertainty and while too much randomness can be a bad thing, every game tended to blend together when reflecting on them. I’m told the expansions, Branch & Claw, adds an event deck that helps liven up the game but I cannot comment on it as I never played it. The scenarios tackle this issue somewhat but I felt like they were more variants as opposed to the intended way to play.
One of the more notable aspects of Spirit Island that is mentioned constantly is that it all but eliminates quarterbacking, a common issue with co-operative games. I agree that the typical quarterbacking is no longer an issue but instead what it replaces it with is worse, in my opinion. The game tasks players with planning out their turns (as they happen simultaneously), which results in players dumping massive amounts of information onto the table that will overwhelm players and bog the game down. All players need to be precisely on the same page for these plans to work (due to the fast and slow nature of the spirit actions). With the wealth of information being shared, one player isn’t dictating what each player will do necessarily but I felt less like I was playing a game and more solving a puzzle with what few pieces I had available to me. Some people will find this to be a lot of fun; I found this to be a bore as it just slows the game down so much and sucked all fun from the rounds. Playing solo or two-players wasn’t terrible but three- and four-players just dragged. I’m sure when a group of regulars get ten, fifteen, and twenty games in this becomes a much quicker process but there was no way I was making it that long, let alone my group.
Actually, in reference to four-players, it wasn’t too bad as players typically stuck to their island and only asked for help when needed. This would only work with experienced players however and a player becoming overwhelmed spelled doom for the group if it happened.
The game is able to replace traditional quarterbacking due to the complexity and uniqueness of the different Spirits and how they play and interact with one another but is that introduction of simultaneous collaboration any better when compared to quarterbacking or is it just making the game difficult enough for players that it’s too difficult to manage to play your role as well as others? I personally see quarterbacking as an issue that is due to a player, not a game or mechanic, and where there’s a will, there will be a way for someone to control what they want to control.
Spirit Island is well known for its theme and art but I had some minor complaints about these as well. The game has an incredible theme but it starts to come unwoven as you play the game. Some card powers clearly don’t mesh with the Spirit you’re controlling and you might be forced to destroy some of the indigenous people you’ve sworn to protect. That seems against the grain of what the theme is all about.
The thematic board side is also all but unplayable as it cannot be read. I appreciate that they put effort into making one side “realistic” but you’re left with a board you cannot use and another side that looks like a prototype.
I have a love/hate relationship with the insert. It’s functional and nice that I can take it out of the box for component storage during games, but it doesn’t fit sleeved cards and has to be precariously put away to ensure everything fits correctly. I have to assume there’s no way to include Branch & Claw in the base box as well based on how tightly packed everything is (although that’s a personal complaint as I tend to ditch expansion boxes).
Another component question is why was the starting presence on the back of the player boards?!? I know I would have gotten use to this in time but so many times did someone set up their board only to have to turn it over and undo their work or worse, do that weird motion where you try to lift the board perfectly parallel to the table and that never works.
I’m quite confused as to the audience for Spirit Island. This is definitely catering to players that want a long, heavy game with a lot of depth. The gameplay however resonates with players that want to gamble or make sub-optimal plays in the hope that what they’re doing is good enough. These two groups seem to contradict one another.
I think Spirit Island could be a great solo game (and for some it is) but controlling two spirits was just too much of a brain burn for me. It’s doable, but sucked the fun out of the game for me personally and when playing with just one spirit, the odds are totally stacked against the player.
Lastly, Spirit Island has some of the most toxic loyal fans of any game I’ve played. There are plenty of people who go to bat for the games they enjoy when people badmouth them but seeing individuals ask simple questions or voice concerns over the game only to be talked down to and gate kept is disheartening. This is in no way the fault of the creator or the design of the game and probably entirely my fault for visiting these areas of the internet but it was such a striking difference when compared to other that I’ve read about and commented on.
I don’t like the game but that doesn’t make it a bad game. In fact, I was incredibly impressed with how fluid the mechanics were and while there were a lot of rules and information for players to remember, it was never overwhelming. It didn’t take long for us to learn and while I wouldn’t consider this a gateway game by any stretch of the imagination, this is something that players could tackle once they’re ready for the next step and are in the mood for a longer, heavier game. The rulebook does an incredible job of streamlining the core competencies of gameplay and when a rule is inevitably missed, it’s not earth shattering. I kept hearing that the rules were complicated and would give me trouble but if you’re comfortable playing modern games, you’ll more than likely be fine with Spirit Island. There will be some hiccups but that’s true with most games.
The Spirits and their variable play styles make games unique and provide challenges for players as they have to figure out how not only their Spirit works but how their Spirit meshes with the others in play. Each Spirit plays different and feels absolutely unique. You can really feel like you control the wind or the water with the abilities at your disposal. I think Spirit Island handled the asymmetric powers as best as any game I’ve played has as you don’t have to learn different rules to play as each Spirit (like in Root, for instance). Play style is what is unique and playing one Spirit will be vastly different than playing another but the core actions and mechanics remain the same. In tune with learning about the Spirits is building them up over the course of the game, unlocking new abilities and powers.
Spirit Island has players taking their turns simultaneously, which is great for a co-operative game (minus the points I made earlier) that isn’t a real-time game. Whereas a Pandemic can sometimes feel like you’re playing a solo game with other players, Spirit Island never creates that illusion (unless of course you’re playing by yourself).
I mentioned that I didn’t like the formulaic approach and the lack of surprises but that doesn’t mean it’s done poorly; I just don’t enjoy it. The game doesn’t hide any information from you and tells you exactly how it’s going to beat you. Everything is left in the players hands to stop it. You know almost exactly what is coming next. It’s a very interesting mechanic. It also helps streamline games as the Invaders are revealed and react the same (typically) game after game. What could have been incredibly convoluted is rather simple and fluid to perform once you know what you’re doing.
The difficulty scaling offers replayability that rewards players looking for a tougher experience with each play. That replayability increases with the different modular map creations and the introduction of scenarios. If Spirit Island is the game for you, there is enough game here to keep you busy for quite some time. I think this is where the anti-climactic finish works in the games favor as you’re never fully satisfied and while it’s out, you might as well play one more game. The amount of content is worth the price of the game. A lot of games gussy up the components and artwork and provide a fun experience but it’s never truly worth the high dollar amount. While Spirit Island has those things, it’s definitely has content for days… and that’s before players even consider thinking of adding Branch & Claw.
Speaking of the difficulty, I loved how overwhelming the game was the first few turns. Spirit Island is a game where you sink or swim and the boat starts with a leak. Unlike Pandemic or Flash Point: Fire Rescue, this game throws you into the deep end and forces you to attempt to stay afloat. There’s no acclimation. I cannot express how much I loved this aspect. Also, compared to Flash Point and Pandemic, you know what’s coming at you so it’s easy to prepare for turns. I noted this as a negative due to the formulaic approach the game provides but it also replaces the randomness card draws or dice rolls produce.
I would be remiss to talk about Spirit Island and not talk about the theme and the artwork. So many games have players acting as the explorers, invading a foreign land and building upon it, but not Spirit Island. Here the roles are reversed and players are fighting the usual “heroes”. Adding the Spirit element takes it in another direction, an unusual direction, but one that works for the island. Whether you like the artwork or not (as art is subjective), all can appreciate the world building they’ve done with it. The vibrant colors create a scene that is unlike almost any other board game I’ve played and helps mold that uniqueness you see in the individual spirits.
I completely understand why Spirit Island is popular and I wish I enjoyed it more but alas, it was not for me. Hopefully this helps people know if the game is for them or not as well. I was lucky enough to be able to flip my game for the cost I paid for it due to its popularity (and somewhat scarcity) but why bother if you don’t have to?